A lesser-known language in the spotlight: the Brussels dialect!

6 May 2023

In the film ‘Vlaanderen en Brussel, een verhaal van migranten’ (Flanders and Brussels, a story of migrants), made by Peter Verlinden for the MigratieMuseumMigration, we discover the story of the inhabitants of Brussels ‘with Flemish roots’. One of them says: “When I speak the Brussels dialect, for example on the phone with my brothers and sisters, I have to search, I have to switch.

Like someone who always speaks French, but who spoke Dutch as a child, has to switch back to Dutch.” He is certainly not alone in this case: with the last generations of ketjes (kids) and zwanzeurs (jokers), the Brussels dialect is also on the verge of disappearing. The same applies to the other Brabant dialects, but in Brussels the process goes even faster, because the number of Dutch speakers is also decreasing here.

And of these Dutch speakers, only a small proportion still master the Brussels dialect. Brussels dialect is in fact a form of the broader Brabant dialect, but with a large number of French loan words and derivatives thereof.

For centuries, French was the language of the elite throughout the Netherlands, but after Belgium’s independence, the process of Frenchisation accelerated in Brussels. Not only did the Brussels dialect acquire more and more French loanwords, but speakers increasingly switched back and forth between French and their dialect. People used to start a story in French and end it in Brussels dialect, or vice versa. Today, this phenomenon has practically disappeared.

Here and there, attempts are being made to preserve the Brussels dialect as a heritage language. For example, there is the Brussels Volkstejoêter (Brussels popular theatre) and an Academy of the Brussels language. The dialect also lives on in various names, such as the many names containing the word ket (e.g. Ket & Co), the organization Brusselleer, the Zinneke Parade. If you want to discover other Brussels words and expressions, visit www.brusseleir.eu.

One last Brussels fact: Hergé used various forms of Brussels dialect as exotic languages in his Tintin albums. For example, in The Sceptre of Ottokar, Tintin finds himself in the fictional Slavic country of Syldavia. The motto on Ottokar’s coat of arms is Eih bennek – eih blavek, derived from Brussels ee ben ek, ee blaaiv ek: here I am, here I stay.